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Douglass Township Planning Commission sends ‘Citizens Ordinance’ to public hearing

DOUGLASS TOWNSHIP – After repealing a wind energy ordinance to avoid a voter referendum, the township may be headed to a referendum anyway.

The Douglass Township Planning Commission voted 4-2 on Monday evening to send a “Citizens Ordinance” (see accompanying info box) to a public hearing at 7 p.m. on July 28, to be followed by a regular Planning Commission meeting at which commissioners may decide whether to recommend the proposed ordinance to the Douglass Township Board.

Planning Commissioners Rick Baldwin, Kevin Rush, Cindy Shick and Todd Wells voted “yes” while Pat Althoff and Jack Jeppesen voted no (Tim Snyder was absent).

The action came after a heated township board meeting earlier this month at which the township board declined to even vote on the Planning Commission’s recommendation to extend the township’s wind moratorium (which is currently set to expire in August) for a year (into August 2022) or until a new wind ordinance was put into place.

The Planning Commission has been working on updating its ordinance to address Apex Clean Energy’s proposal to install 75 commercial wind turbines throughout Montcalm County, but not much progress has been made at recent meetings. The Planning Commission was supposed to finally start working on its wind ordinance on Monday, but this never happened. Instead, Jeppesen announced that the Planning Commission would now be going to quarterly meetings (instead of having special meetings to work on the ordinance), with the next meeting not being until July 28, unless the township board wanted to pay the required $500 per Planning Commission meeting for special meetings.

“I don’t know what the hurry is,” Rush observed. “They (Apex) said it’d be months – months – before they would be doing anything anyway.”

“And we’ve got an ordinance right now,” said Jeppesen, referring to the township’s ordinance from 2017.

“That is totally irresponsible for the township and everyone else concerned,” Baldwin interjected. “That’s why they (township officials) sent us on this course (to update the wind ordinance) to begin with.”

“I understand Rick, but when we did the amendment two years ago we did it in quarterly meetings so I see no reason to have special meetings from now on out,” Jeppesen said.

“I have to disagree,” Wells told Jeppesen. “As you can see, there’s a lot of people here, there’s a lot of concern. I think the township has the money to have a few more meetings for all of us. It doesn’t make sense that we would stop talking about this just because we have this old rule of a few extra meetings a year. This is obviously a very big topic and I think a few hundred dollars would be well spent.”

Baldwin then made a motion.

“With the public hearings and the board meetings and the calendar running out, I’m going to move that we recommend to the board the so-called Citizens Ordinance,” he said. “It was what (Douglass Township Supervisor) Terry (Anderson) asked Cindy and I to bring forth a long time ago.”

Shick seconded this motion.

“It’s about what time we’ve got left,” Baldwin elaborated. “We’re running out of time. That 2017 ordinance, it has no protections in there for the township. It was very vague.”

Tim Johnson, who was in attendance as the township’s hired planner, noted that the Planning Commission must first hold a public hearing regarding the ordinance before recommending it to the township board, so Baldwin’s motion was then clarified.

“(The ‘Citizens Ordinance’) was brought forward a long time ago. There’s been a lot of water over the dam since. It was taken to Montcalm County Citizens United (a group based on Facebook). It was approved by them, so if it’s approved by this board, it’s at least two-thirds of the way down the road,” Baldwin said of his reasoning for the motion. “At least we don’t have to worry about somebody coming back in and doing a referendum on it again.

“I gotta tell you, Jack, that (the ‘Citizens Ordinance’) was a compromise,” Baldwin added. “A lot of people wanted nothing over the treetop height for a maximum height. They wanted even less noise than’s in here. It’s a little lighter than Sidney’s (Township), it’s not as restrictive as Sidney’s. It has been taken to the public and it has been supported.”

“Has it gone to Montcalm Wind (Apex Clean Energy)?” Jeppesen asked. “Have any of those people had any input in on that?”

“Well, they had input on the one that was just taken to a referendum,” Shick responded.

“But they had no input on this one,” Jeppesen said. “I’m just asking you, Rick, was Montcalm (Apex) involved in any debate on drafting this one? Yes or no?”

“No,” said Baldwin, adding that the Planning Commission could easily work on the wind ordnance at quarterly meetings if the township board had approved extending the wind moratorium.

“We don’t have that time,” Baldwin said. “There’s a lot of hoops to jump through and we don’t have time for this, not to get something in place by August (when the moratorium expires).”

“I don’t like the timeframe anyway,” Rush said. “It’s not fair to every citizen of Douglass Township to put something rushed through or compromised.”

Althoff noted the proposed “Citizens Ordinance” calls for a turbine setback of five times the height of a turbine with a height limit of 330 feet.

“That’s like 3,000 feet,” Jeppesen said (referring to if the turbines were 600 feet tall). “That’s impossible. That’s half a mile.”

“Everybody has the perfect right to referendum that,” Baldwin said. “And hopefully maybe they will and then it can go to a vote and we can take it back and spend the time doing it the right way.”

Shick noted the World Health Organization says any noise above 55 decibels is not good for public health (the “Citizens Ordinance” calls for a daytime noise limit of 45 dBa lmax or 55 dBC and a nighttime noise limit of 35 dBa lmax or 45 dBC lmax).

“We can argue our preferences all night long,” Shick said. “But I truly believe we’re here to represent them (gesturing to the residents in attendance). We have a very strong public opinion of wanting restrictions placed. If it was me, if Cindy was writing this, Cindy would write in 100-foot tip height. I don’t want to see them over the trees. But this is a compromise.

“Our last ordinance, we had very little public input, we had a lot of corporate input, and we were (faced with a) referendum,” she said. “Now if we put this out there, it can (go to a) referendum too if someone says ‘no, we don’t like that.’ Let those people now referendum it, because I feel now we have done our due diligence to reach out to our community, to research and this is where we’re at. Put something in place to protect our community.”

Audience members applauded and cheered at this statement.

PUBLIC COMMENT

Jack Jeppesen had previously said that public comment would not be allowed at Monday’s meeting. In response to this, the Daily News pointed out in an April 30 article that this would be a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Public comment was allowed at Monday’s meeting. Nearly 40 people were in attendance, including once again a Montcalm County sheriff’s deputy.

Kellie Jeppesen, the wife of Jack Jeppesen, has long been vocal in public meetings about how wind turbine projects can benefit local farmers, as well as serve as farmers’ retirement, and she addressed the topic again during Monday’s meeting.

“You talked to the anti’s in the Montcalm County (Citizens) United,” Kellie said to Planning Commission members. “Nobody talked to me. Nobody talked to Del. Nobody talked to Jimmie Jackson. Nobody talked to anybody that is thinking of or having a property within the zone. You guys wanna be fair, well, you need to be fair. If you guys are going to talk to everybody that’s against it and wants limited height, then talk to some of us that also want to look at the other options. Seems to me I’m the only one that tends to speak up because I don’t care. We don’t have anything signed. We have no conflict of interest. If you guys wanna be fair, come talk to me, talk to other people, not just your ‘Montcalm Wind United.’”

Melissa Bannen of Douglass Township followed this comment by referencing previous comments made by Douglass Township officials.

“I wanted to comment on what a pleasant meeting it was tonight to not have anybody degrade us, insult us, disrespect us,” Bannen said. “This is how it should be running all along. I just think that we all need to be above the board and not tell people to choke on their dinner and not be disrespectful and not degrade people. This was a beautiful meeting, everybody’s been respectful, thank you very much.”

Bannen was referring to a Facebook comment posted by Jack Jeppesen to Genny Towne stating, “Hope all of you that think farmers are in it for the money choke on your dinner tonight” underneath a May 11 Facebook post by Bob Gilman which shared the Daily News article, “No wind turbine plans for Crooks, Main and Sackett potato farms.”

Brandy Bunting of Douglass Township referenced Jack’s comment earlier in Monday’s meeting about the township already having a wind ordinance in place.

“I heard at both the board meeting last week and at this table tonight, ‘we (already) have an ordinance,’” Bunting said. “As a taxpayer and a voter who put my board in place and a citizen of Douglass Township for my entire life, there is nothing more disgusting, irresponsible and disappointing than hearing that phrase when you yourself and the board yourself last November didn’t think that the 2017 ordinance was acceptable. And now it is. Why? I’m having a feeling that it’s just because that you’re seeing that you want to get them in so desperately that it’ll work now. And that is disgusting and disappointing. It doesn’t protect the township at all. If you guys and the board are representing the township, then you need to pay attention to what is best for the township and for your citizens in terms of health safety and welfare That is your only job, that is all that matters. It’s sad, it’s disgusting to hear that phrase, ‘well, we have an ordinance.’ No. Not if you’re doing your job then you don’t have an ordinance.”

Larry and Laura Engel, who have signed a property lease with Apex and have been outspoken at public meetings and in the Daily News regarding their support of wind energy, both spoke. Larry noted that pontoon boats on Montcalm County’s many lakes are louder than 40 decibels. Laura referenced Shick’s comment about the World Health Organization’s recommendations about noise limits.

“I think we really make a mistake by putting too many of our eggs in the basket of the World Health Organization,” Laura said. “They’re really sort of disgraced themselves lately. If you’ve been following the COVID-19 problem with China, the World Health Organization really doesn’t seem to have any problem with that, so I think you’ve gotta be a little bit careful with that.”

Albert Jongewaard, the senior development manager for Apex, was present via Zoom and he responded to Shick’s comments from earlier in Monday’s meeting.

“There were some comments made about the involvement that Apex or corporate involvement had influence in the drafting of the previous ordinance,” Jongewaard said. “As far as I know, the only involvement that we had in providing comment was the three minutes of public comment that everyone else was able to take advantage of, the same opportunity.”

The proposed “Citizens Ordinance” calls for the following

wind turbine zoning requirements (this is just a partial list):

• A height limit of 330 feet from the maximum tip of the turbine.

• A minimum setback of five times the tip height from the property line of a non-participating landowner or any road right-of-way.

• A daytime noise limit of 45 dBa lmax or 55 dBC (from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.) at a property line or any point within a non-participating property unless applicant provides documentation in the form of a signed agreement.

• A nighttime noise limit of 35 dBa lmax or 45 dBC lmax (from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m.) at a property line or any point within a non-participating property unless applicant provides documentation in the form of a signed agreement.

• Zero shadow flicker or strobe effect on properties without a signed release.

Source: Douglass Township Planning Commission Secretary Cindy Shick